The Hall of Fame Case for Larry Walker

Jan 26, 2015 by Adam Darowski

Larry Walker has had an interesting run on the Hall of Fame ballot. He debuted on the ballot in 2011 and received 20% of the vote. According to Graham Womack, that gives him about a 50% chance of future induction (and even that would be via the Veterans Committee).

Of course, Hall of Fame balloting is no longer following historical norms. After three years between 20 and 23%, Walker saw his support cut in half over the next two cycles. To make matters worse, he now has five fewer attempts at induction due to rule changes.

Based on the public ballots available before the 2015 election, some feared Walker was in danger dipping below 5%, but he is one of the few candidates who fares better on private ballots than he does on public ones. Nathaniel Rakich explains this phenomenon at Baseballot:

As it turns out, ballot aggregators consistently over- and underestimate certain candidates (i.e., players) by predictable margins. This makes sense—the polling sample is self-selected, and the kinds of voters who value transparency and choose to release their ballots (thus opening themselves up to all sorts of vitriol on Twitter and in comments sections) are very different from those who clam up. Generally, writers who make their ballots public skew more progressive, overstating support for steroid-tainted candidates (e.g., Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens) as well as those with more subtle, sabermetrics-based cases for induction (e.g., Tim Raines and Mike Mussina). The casters of private ballots, on the other hand, are more likely to be conservative voters—less likely to be on Twitter (a major medium for sharing ballots) and less likely to even still be covering baseball (it’s hard to explain your ballot when you no longer have column inches to devote to it). This explains why private ballots will give old-school candidates like Lee Smith and Don Mattingly a significant boost in the final results as compared to the polls.

I would argue that Larry Walker is the player who bucks this trend. He garners more support among the “old-school” voters despite having overwhelming sabermetric credentials.

Walker’s 151 Hall Rating ranks #67 all time. He ranks third among eligible position players outside of the Hall of Fame, behind only Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell. He ranks ahead of Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines, and even Pete Rose and Joe Jackson. Yet even sabermetric-leaning analysts still seem to consider him a borderline candidate.

Walker has a ridiculous .965 career OPS. Of course we shouldn’t take that at face value—Walker played during the height of the offensive boom and called Coors Field his home for nearly a decade. But we also shouldn’t completely disregard his offensive production just because some of it happened in Denver. Many players have played in Coors Field, but none of them have dominated quite like Walker. Walker’s OPS in Coors was 1.172. Todd Helton’s, meanwhile, was 1.048. Heck, Barry Bonds even sits behind Walker at 1.162. Only Sammy Sosa can boast a higher OPS—but he played in 551 fewer games.

Ballpark adjustments may not be an exact science, but at least they allow us to apply some contextual adjustment to a career like Walker’s. After park adjustment, Walker’s OPS+ is 141. How big is that adjustment? Walker’s raw OPS ranks 12th all time and his OPS+ ranks 36th (minimum of 8,000 plate appearances). That’s a big drop, but there are 148 position players in the Hall of Fame. The guy who ranks 36th in OPS+ while providing exceptional defense (seven Gold Gloves that are supported by advanced metrics) should be an easy call for Cooperstown.

Chipper Jones: Photo Credit

Here are the OPS to OPS+ adjustments for Walker and some of his slugging peers (difference between the player and Walker in parentheses)…

That seems pretty fair to me. Jones has an OPS 36 points below Walker and his OPS+ is equal to Walker. Bagwell’s OPS is 17 points lower, but his OPS+ is eight points greater than Walker. That’s a heck of an adjustment. Especially considering…

Larry Walker played only 597 games in Coors Field. Compare that to 1,141 for Todd Helton. Walker played in just under 2,000 games in his career and only 30% of them actually were played in Denver. He was only a Rockie for 9½ of his 17 seasons. He started his career in Montreal where he had a 128 OPS+ from ages 22 to 27. Then he finished his career with a season and a half in St. Louis where his OPS+ was 134. The guy hit everywhere he went, from the first day of his career until his last.

On top of that, Walker was also an extremely valuable player in every other aspect of the game. Despite withholding a Hall of Fame vote for Walker (because he “just didn't play enough or care enough”), Troy Renck of The Denver Post said

Larry Walker is the best player I've ever covered. He had more tools than Lowe's, winning batting crowns, saving runs defensively and running the bases with his head on a swivel, always knowing when to shift gears.

The numbers absolutely back it up. Walker excels in every WAR component. We know he could hit. He had 420 WAR batting runs. Other players within a few batting runs of Walker include Rafael Palmeiro, Vladimir Guerrero, Todd Helton, and Lance Berkman. I think those names support my claim that the park factors are doing their job.

But Walker was also worth 94 WAR fielding runs, 40 WAR base-running runs, and even 10 WAR double play runs (for avoiding more double plays than the average player). If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of baseball research, it’s that the most overlooked players in history are the ones who do everything well. Larry Walker did everything well.

Here’s a complete list of players who can match Walker’s fielding, base-running, and double play numbers (along with their WAR batting runs):

PlayerRbatRbaserRdpRfieldHall Rating
Larry Walker420401094150
Kenny Lofton1407923108131
Ichiro Suzuki1166150107106
Willie Davis446234104102
Devon White-8401813384
Willie Wilson-571202510881
Ozzie Smith-1177924239145
Luis Aparicio-197921814994

Not only is Walker the best hitter of the group (by far), he also has the best Hall Rating.

Everyone talks about the advantages Larry Walker had by playing in Coors. But what about the disadvantages? All regular players during Walker’s years in Colorado had a huge home/road split. Peter Gammons points out that from 1995 to 2004, Rockies hitters collectively batted .321/.385/.532 at Coors Field and .246/.313/.388 on the road. That’s an enormous disparity that goes beyond the typical park factors. Walker’s situation isn’t all that unique—he just happens to be the best player to ever be in that situation.

Jerry Dipoto offered this insight about playing in Coors:

“At Coors, with the altitude and the air pitches simply don’t run,” says DiPoto. “Breaking balls are not the same. The infield is hard, and balls shoot through the gaps, no matter what they try to do with the balls (and the thermidor). Hitters get used to very little movement. Then they get out on the road and it’s just the opposite. It seems like everyone’s pitches are running like they’re Kevin Brown. Breaking balls seem to break harder and deeper. Pitchers deal with the reverse.

“It’s as if you’re playing two very different games, which isn’t easy.”

Dan O’Dowd, Walker’s general manager, also believes Coors played a role in Walker’s durability (or lack therof):

One thing that has hurt Walker is that in his 17 year career, he played 145 games in a season once. He averaged 123 games. Granted, he opened his career in Montreal and wound down in St. Louis, but his peers and his general manager, O’Dowd, maintain a major factor in that games played —aside from his reckless, fearless style—is the recovery difficulties because of the altitude. “We tried everything to try to deal with it, but nothing worked for any length of time,” says O’Dowd. “Everyday players don’t bounce back. It takes a tremendous toll on pitchers (remember Mike Hampton’s hyperbaric chamber?).”

Coors Field didn’t contribute to all of Walker’s injuries. In fact, injuries slowed his progression to the big leagues (he missed the entire 1988 season following an injury in winter ball)—as did his desire to be an NHL goaltender.

Born in British Columbia, Walker was more focused on playing hockey than baseball as a youth. In fact, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and honed his skills by blocking the shots of friend and future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely. Baseball was a secondary focus for Walker until he was cut from a pair of Junior A hockey teams. He wasn't drafted by an MLB team; instead, Expos scouting director Jim Fanning spotted him at a tournament and signed him for a paltry bonus of $1,500 in 1984. At the time, he was unbelievably raw.

Still, despite Walker’s injury issues, he still averaged more games per season than Willie Stargell. In fact, Walker had more 150 game seasons (1 to 0) and 130 game seasons (10 to 9) than Stargell, who played a longer career and coasted into Cooperstown on his first ballot.

I was originally a bit skeptical of Walker’s Hall of Fame case, despite his high WAR total. But after digging deeper and deeper into where that WAR comes from (much like I did with Rick Reuschel), I’ve become downright bullish about the fact that Walker deserves a place in Cooperstown.

Further Reading on Larry Walker

The Standards of Today Would Create a Very Different Hall of Fame: This piece I wrote for The Hardball Times in 2015 was nominated for a SABR Research Award. In it, I compare Walker to Al Simmons…

Even if you don’t believe WAR adjusts enough for Coors Field or don’t fully trust Walker’s defensive numbers, Al Simmons basically represents the worst-case scenario comparison for Larry Walker. Since Simmons is one of the 100 best players in history, that means Larry Walker absolutely should be a Hall of Famer.

Larry Walker and Responsible Park Factoring: I wrote this piece at High Heat Stats in 2013…

If Larry Walker was a weak-fielding first baseman, I would say that his offense, once park-adjusted, would make him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. But he played right field. He was a force on the bases. He was an even bigger force defensively, both by the new metrics and by the awards of his day.

The Three Larry Walkers: by Bryan O’Connor, also at High Heat Stats. So many good points here…

Sure, Walker took advantage of the comforts of Coors in a way that Roberto Clemente and Pete Rose never got to do. But isn’t it illustrative that he put up better numbers there (.381/.462/.710) than any player in team history?

This passage demonstrates the enormity of Walker’s unadjusted stats:

Almost no one has done what Larry Walker did from ages 28 to 37. He batted .334/.426/.618 for a decade, still playing above-average defense and finding time to steal 126 bases. The closest comp I could find was Stan Musial, whose 1.008 OPS from 28 to 37 was .036 points lower, but who kept it up for almost 1,800 more plate appearances. Jimmie Foxx had three 1.000 OPS seasons over that span (Walker had six), but stumbled toward the end of his career and finished the span with a .991 OPS. If you’re looking for better raw numbers than what Walker did in Colorado, you’re in Ruth/Williams territory.

JAWS and the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot: Larry Walker: of course Jay Jaffe covers Walker elegantly for Sports Illustrated

Walker’s all-around greatness added a considerable amount of hidden value that helped him make up for lost time. Consider, for instance, his defensive statistics. According to Total Zone and (from 2003 onward) Defensive Runs Saved, he was 94 runs above average for his career thanks to his strong arm, range and instincts, a total that ranks eighth all-time among rightfielders. Then there's his work on the basepaths: Walker's base running and ability to avoid double plays was worth another 50 runs, or roughly an extra five wins.

If You Vote for Vlad, You Have to Vote for Walker: Paul Swydan tackles Larry Walker’s Hall of Fame case for Fangraphs…

If you want to vote for Vladimir Guerrero, that’s totally fine. I would love to see him in the Hall of Fame — I’m not a “Small Hall” guy by any stretch. But if you are voting for Guerrero, you should be voting for Larry Walker, too.

The Ballot 7: Larry Walker: Joe Posnanski has finally started fighting harder for Larry Walker.

And we come to the punch line. Only three players rank in the Top 100 in all three categories [WAR's batting, fielding, and base-running components —AD]. One is Willie Mays, which of course you knew. Two is Barry Bonds, which of course you knew, even if you don’t like it. And three is … Larry Walker.

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